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Curious Thirsty Learner, 10 minutes with Elizabeth Valentine

‘My mantra in business has always been, work with dignity’. This was just one of many “killer” opening lines, New Zealand based Technology consultant, Dr Elizabeth Valentine CIO at Massey University, shared with me as we discussed, among other things, the value of engaging with your audience and the importance of nailing that all-important opening line.


Being able to create that impactful and insightful opening line in any presentation is what draws in your audience to feel inspired and engaged. Elizabeth has delivered that killer line on more than one occasion.


She has over 20 years’ experience in leadership roles and is a renowned international keynote speaker, delivering thought provoking keynotes and lectures on technology and governance. Elizabeth, an experienced and successful digital transformation specialist, spent 45 minutes with me (via Skype and a time zone or two) to discuss technology, ethics, diversity and leadership in the workplace.


If it ticks at the top, it ticks at the bottom


Claire Roper: Having a healthy mind, body and soul no doubt has a positive effect on productivity, statistics show 91% of workers at companies which support wellbeing efforts say they feel motivated to do their best. Do you think wellbeing in the workplace should be at a business or government level?


Elizabeth Valentine: It’s both. It’s as well as, not instead of. At a business level it's important to put all your support systems in place. But personally, as a leader I ensure I have a healthy lifestyle and put an emphasis on healthy eating and work-life balance. I’ve had a personal yoga and meditation practice, pretty much daily, for nearly 30 years. I figure if it ticks at the top it ticks at the bottom. Being healthy, having good practices for reducing stress and leading by example play out into the workplace.


My personal preference is to encourage mindfulness and discourage a drinking culture within the workplace, because as you rightly say, a healthy mind, body and soul tends to support productive relationships and business outcomes.


At a Government level, legislation needs to play a part alongside businesses in creating an environment of wellbeing. There has recently been legislation changes in New Zealand, where everyone from the Board of Directors down are now accountable for health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace.


Diversity isn’t just about male and female


CR: Studies from McKinsey report, ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform, and Gender Diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform. It’s clear to see Diversity is important to businesses, but putting the monetary issues aside, what does the human element of diversity mean to you?


EV: We have to understand Diversity isn’t just about male and female, it's bigger than that. I’ve always been a fanatic about capability and very keen to get the right person for the right job. This means I have always aimed for a very diverse workforce. This includes people with disabilities, different languages, sexualities, cultures and backgrounds.


As long as the individual has the capability for the role, that’s all that matters. Alongside this though, it’s important to lead a zero tolerance for bullying including sexism, ageism, racism etc, and to have performance measures for executives and managers that focus on the type of organisation culture you’re after.


Matching the demography with the community


When I first studied diversity and organisational development in the early 1990’s, I was involved in implementing changes in the banking system and proposed the need to concentrate on diversity in front line teams. In the 90s, few organisations had considered matching the demographic diversity of a customer community with a complementary diversity across front-line staff. Put simply, it made sense to apply demographic matching as a deliberate approach to not only improve frontline diversity, but to building competitive advantage through people in retail banking.


Diversity needs to filter into how businesses provide front line services to local communities, which means diversity actually becomes a relevant interaction with your community, as well as your employees.


Unconscious bias can play a major part in recruitment and therefore diversity


As an older woman, it’s easy to be marginalised. For some, it can be difficult to secure work. This is why I recommend being proactive and creating your own opportunities. I have colleagues and connections in my network of a certain age who have struggled to find work and have given up trying. The sad thing is they are experienced, intelligent people who could add enormous value. The assumption seems to be that older workers are expensive to recruit. My experience suggests we ignore the ‘longevity revolution’ at our peril.


Including older workers in our diversity profiling will become more important as retirement ages are increased.


As a strategy, ‘Blind Recruitment’ (the practice of removing names and gender from the resumes) in initial reviewing of talent plays a big part in removing any unconscious bias we unintentionally have. To counteract this unconscious bias in business, it's important to continue to develop your knowledge, and ensure your personal brand is up to-date. I regularly publish papers and create thought leadership. I never used my gender inappropriately to win business and have never compromised who I am to win my goals in business.


We need to support working parents through the entirety of their journey


CR: I recently read a statistic by Ancestry.com which reported the proportion of working mothers had increased 800% since 1860. What can businesses leaders do within their own organisations do to encourage and accommodate working parents.


EV: As business leaders we need to support working parents – men and women - through the entirety of their journey. If that means having flexible and agile working spaces, providing homework rooms and the ability to bring the children into the office, then that’s what we need to do. The big corporations have already started this practice with childcare facilities in their premises. Germany is a great example of supporting working parents, by offering more than just working from home options, and supporting parents with a range of facilities and benefits.

  • 24 months of paid parental leave or, 28 months shared paid parental leave.

  • Over 80% of all children between three and six years attend a kindergarten in Germany. The state supporting parents with monetary incentives.

  • Daycare (Kindertagesbetreuung) is very affordable, nurseries typically charging EUR 70–150 per child per month.


A great slice of our humanity will be taken away


CR: There are many influences, (politicians, world leaders, business leaders, celebrities, journalists) in our society who can play a part in shaping our attitudes and views of the world, do you think this effects behaviour in the workplace on a daily basis?


EV: Absolutely, for example the disturbing cultural shifts in the United States. The President’s views, behaviour and attitudes towards women, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and immigrants seem extraordinary. We have already seen observable knock-on effects in society with increasing divisiveness and punitive immigration laws for example. To me this type of leadership risks taking our human experience back decades.


It's very important to have a mindful aspect to Leadership.


Such leadership influences can play out in the workplace. They risk encouraging a "lad culture" or a "race-based club". As a leader you need to decide what culture you'd like to facilitate in your workplace, and not let outside influences make those subtle decisions for you.


World Class not world Domination


CR: As organisations grow and become bigger and more successful, how do you keep inspiration and innovation alive within the team?


EV: For me, ‘world domination’ is just another way of promoting growth at any price. This can have tremendously negative personal and organisation consequences. However, ‘world class’ is visionary and inclusive. Such a vision can stimulate real innovation and a sense of being part of something worth working towards. It’s always essential to lead world class with energy, enthusiasm and a sense of deep curiosity. World domination is about brute force; world class requires continuous learning, creativity, courage and resilience.


Create a continuous learning experience


I’m a thirsty, curious learner and never stop questioning and researching. To stay at the top of my game, I ensure I read something new every day and never stop discovering and understanding new trends and technologies.


As a leader, I may not always be able to inspire others. I am however, responsible for inspiring myself and creating a continuous learning experience within my workforce. I acknowledge and reward this in fun ways: the monthly ‘ferret’ award for finding the best new research or development; the ‘silo-busting team’ award for the team that demonstrates collaboration, and so on. Encouraging what you want, noticing people’s efforts and saying thank you in simple ways, can go a long way, especially during change.


Always prepare your killer opening line


CR : You are a key note speaker and have delivered talks to small and large audiences. Being able to command the stage and deliver a powerful speech is a skill. What top tips can you offer for effective public speaking?


EV: Always do your homework! I’m very interested in my audience, their needs, interests and abilities. I research and find out as much insight as I can about the attendees. I ensure I understand my communication objectives and keep my message simple. To create a big impact, always prepare your killer opening line.


I do this in a number of different ways. For example, I always arrive early and talk with attendees. So, my killer line might start with, ‘I was chatting to a manager from London at morning tea about the issues his company is having with (insert topic). He raised an interesting point….’ Or before starting my delivery, I ask the audience questions about their roles, preferences or experiences. Then I tailor my killer line to the exact audience. I may invite them to imagine what it would be like if the problem or issue was resolved. In short, telling a story and making your delivery contextually relevant tends to grab attention.



Elizabeth presenting the Keynote at Cenro de Ciberseguridad Industrial in Spain


Avoid death by PowerPoint


Visually your presentation must be appealing with appropriate branding. Always pay attention to consistency of formatting, images and messaging. The small details matter and can take your presentation from amazing to outta this world. If you use links or embedded video, make sure they work!


And lastly, practice, practice, practice; get your timings right and ensure you have smooth transitions between slides. Tell a story that relates to the slides; never ever read from slides unless you want to bore your audience to death.


My person a value: - Work with Dignity


CR: What are the most important decisions you can make as a leader to an organisation.


EV: On a day to day basis you must be good at dealing with people, but you must be particularly good at dealing with poor performance.


Is the person on the right bus?


Having these conversations is not about being tough and heartless, it’s about providing high quality feedback and dialogue and if that person is not right for the role, help them leave with dignity. This has always been and always will be my personal mantra, "Work with Dignity".


“It just depends”


CR: How do you determine what technology is right for a business?


EV: it really just depends. It depends on your business model; how certain technologies will work within your business. If you have a business where you need to apply AI and machine learning to assist with process, then that's what you need to do. But overall, it's vital to ensure your decision includes how your customers are attracted to you and how easy it is to do business with you. It’s important in a big digital change, to educate your non-IT colleagues and the board. This means the organisation is much more likely to make good technology investment decisions and less likely to resist the change during implementation.


As a leader I like focus on making it ‘easy to do business with us and for us’.


Underneath “It Just Depends”, I use a simple concept. Enabling business transformation with the right technology should focus on "making it easy to do business with us and for us".

In other words, the analysis, design thinking and decision-making is all about customers and other stakeholders and staff as users. When you understand all interactions then you can consider how technology can efficiently and effectively enable a next level positive experience of your organisation and make architecture and investment decisions accordingly.

I’ve used this simple vision of digital change in multiple consulting and CEO roles. It’s a simple, compelling vision of user-designed excellence that non-tech people understand.


Elizabeth speaking on Governance, the board and the CIO at CIO Summit, New Zealand


Then when you are in the decision-making process, it's also crucial to remember who will be using the system, the end user. Keeping in mind their needs and understanding how your business platform helps or hinders this experience. This will help you on your path to effective end user adoption. It applies to all organisations of all types and sizes, whether public or private, large or small. User centred design is enabled by technology (not the other way around). Keep the end users - all your main stakeholders and their access, information, engagement, support and retention - at the forefront of your ‘It Just Depends’ decisions.


It’s a three-stage process


CR: Technology plays a major part in our daily lives and has impacted the workforce in unprecedented ways. What do you think has been the greatest technological advancement in the past 30 years?


EV: That's simple. For me as an early adopter, beyond the adoption of personal computers, it has been a three-stage process which has evolved rapidly from one technology to the other: The Internet, then the cloud, and then As A Service.


The advent of the internet has been a game changer in so many ways.


The internet gave us the ability to make some extraordinary changes. For example, working in the banking industry and facilitating change within the call centre training approach. The issue was time to competence.


Instead of feeling the need to cram trainees’ heads full of everything about the bank’s products and services from day one, we implemented a smart balance between class-room learning and online performance support.


Not only was the old-fashioned boot camp approach overwhelming for trainees and a source of costly early resignations, understanding the difference between role-specific performance support and class-room training had incredible results.


We were able to reduce the lengthy three week "boot camp" induction process by 33%. By teaching how to use online searchable content through the intranet we reduced induction training costs by 50%. And, by better segmenting who answered customer calls, we were able to drive up customer satisfaction and reduce call times. Introducing an ‘easy to do business with us and for us’ approach into the call centre meant we made good choices about technology, drove up quality, increased the overall customer experience and gave our front-line staff the ability to be exceptional in a much shorter time.


To me, the Internet, Cloud and then As A Service are continuing our technology journey. But I’m also very interested in how emerging, high impact areas such as robotics, digital printing, alternative energy and mobility as a service will serve humanity.


My bottom line? It’s always be about people: technology is the enabler.


Find out more about Elizabeth Valentine or connect on social media

LinkedIn I Twitter I Website


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